Michael Bao Huynh is the winner of Iron Chef Vietnam and Vietnam’s culinary ambassador. VietnamAdvisors is proud to have chef Huynh share his insight on Vietnam’s spirit dish.
Pho, pronounced ‘fa-ah’ is the most traditional and respected meal of Vietnam.
It is the national spirit dish of the country and considered to be the purest meal, with its ability to comfort the soul and provoke the senses.
A Vietnamese noodle bowl may seem casual, but when properly prepared and presented, it will awaken something in you. It makes you feel as if you’re enjoying the subtleties of Earth and Man blended together. Taste buds are awakened by the soft slices of meat, delicate threaded noodles and the sweet, supple, hearty broth. The visual stimuli of Pho is not accidental, but a convergence; crystallizing the quintessence and essence of the five element theory of Vietnamese culinary culture.
The main ingredients of Pho consist of rice noodles, thinly sliced beef or chicken and a flavorful broth enhanced by herbs, delicate vegetables and spices. Pho is prepared in slightly different ways throughout the various regions of Vietnam, with the key importance of bringing the broth to a succulent level from the core of the bone, with spices simmered to a nuanced perfection. These include cinnamon, anise, ginger, cardamom, cloves, coriander, green onion, lemon zest and chili pepper. Homemade Pho noodles are made from a thin sheet of rice dough coated with rice powder cut into long, flat strips or threads.
Pho should be presented as a beautifully prepared dish, thoughtfully layered with each ingredient complimenting the next. Skillfully placed herbs and colorful vegetable accents lay atop a bed of the soft meat, pale noodles and rich broth slightly darkened with soy or pepper. Green onion tops, fresh lime slicest and red chili pepper slices sprinkled atop create an exquisite meal.
Earlier this month, an article was published on Bon Appétit that offered one approach of preparing Pho. Chef Tyler Atkin did a respectable job, but the Internet went off about whether his approach was the “correct” way of preparing the dish.
I believe the correct way of preparing Pho is however you enjoy it most. Each region of Vietnam, north to south has found their preferred way to enjoy Pho, and all are correct because Pho is a very personal dish steeped in varied traditions.
In the North, a bowl of Pho will have meat, noodles, broth and onions. On the dining table will be fresh chopped chili peppers, limes, pickled peppers, garlic, chili sauce, and a plate of fresh herbs to add in. The Central region will have the same ingredients along with local chutney or hot red chili peppers for those who prefer spicier Pho. In the Southern region, Pho bowls are spicier and darker broth, with hot peppers, soy, hoisin sauce, and recently some non-traditional, vegetarian broth choices.
With the differences between the various regions, there is no single “correct” way to prepare Pho. Local cooks, professional chefs, and culinary masters will tell you the same. I believe there are many ways to enjoy a delicious bowl of Pho – each depending on the unique tastes of the individual. What matters more is the spirit with which you approach it. If you appreciate and honor the rich traditions embedded in every bowl – the deep, culinary relationship between Earth and Man – then you have captured the quintessential soul of Pho. To each his own…so “mời bạn” (bon appétit).
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